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Chance Thoughts
by Sue Chance, M.D.
September 1996

Dancing Around in Our Bones

Thanks to a friend, I discovered Wallace Stegner a few years ago. There may be comparable writers around today, but for some reason, in my maturity, Stegner speaks to me more authoritatively than any one else. Just the other day, I pulled out some things saved from his All the Little Live Things, written in 1967.

The main text is a story of growing love--not the romantic kind, but the teaching kind, where an individual comes to see himself more clearly because of the differences between himself and another person. In the case of this book, she's a young neighbor named Marian, dying of cancer. The narrator says of himself, "Sympathy I have failed in, stoicism I have barely passed. But I have made straight "As" in irony--that curse, that evasion, that armor, that way of staying safe while seeming wise. One thing I have learned hard, if indeed I have learned it now: it is a reduction of our humanity to hide from pain, our own or others'. To hide from anything. That was Marian's text. Be open, be available, be exposed, be skinless. Skinless? Dance around in your bones."

I read it and think of every fearful person I've encountered. Then I turn the lens back on myself, and realize it's an all-inclusive category. Making ourselves vulnerable-- doing it by choice and not because we're helpless--oh boy, is that a job or what?

There's a rebellious character in the book named Jim Peck, who sees himself as something of an outlaw and who pushes the narrator's buttons, largely because he reminds him of his late son. This son might be summed up in an old fashioned word. "Wastrel." And again, as good fiction always provides, the encounter with Peck is an encounter with the self and the individual's past; making sense, making use of present material to complete the task of growth.

"To the fading or frozen expressions that hid my son's unreachable privacy I tried to speak my heart, and I had the advantage of endless revisions; but the dead listened no more than the living had. He would have none of my love unless it came unqualified and uncritical and in spite of every provocation--and it is simply uncanny how much of that spirit I detect in Jim Peck, who isn't of course after my love, but who is certainly trying to corner me without losing any of his own men. It is not a kind of love I am ever likely to be able to give. I don't think any human being is entitled to it, and anyway I can't separate love and respect."

Does that rock you as it does me? We get so much of that soft, muzzy pap; that unconditional love stuff. Since when have parents loved their children unconditionally? The conditions are that they share our values, that we see ourselves in them, that they exceed us, that they don't make the same mistakes we did. What is or should be unconditional is our commitment to them, and I hear that commitment in Stegner's words. Parent-child is an endless dialogue; an endless speaking of the heart. But like all dialogues, it takes two to externalize; it takes speaking and listening; it takes the surrender of "unreachable privacy" on the part of both. Sometimes therapy is likened to this. And sometimes it is like this, when by either implication or self-disclosure the therapist dances around in his or her bones.